Thursday, April 30, 2015

Yong Zhao at NPE: Must See Video

If you are going to view or pass along just one hour's worth of viewing to explain why the reformster testing mania is unsupportable, the panic over failing schools is manufactured, and the entire justification for stripping schools (particularly those with poor, non-white students) is bogus, this is the video for you.

We all have some Kardasshian. Out-of-basement readiness. Why Zhao didn't buy shampoo. Why America is still here. Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. And why we need to stop trying to imitate China.

I especially recommend this to show your friends who are not fully immersed in the ongoing debate about US public schools. Highly accessible, very funny, clear and still full of facts-- this is well worth the 55 minutes you will need to watch it.

Yong Zhao (final) from Schoolhouse Live on Vimeo.

(Note: Updated to include the final cut of the speech, complete with slides)

New Teacher Attrition Report: Better Than You Thought

The USED National Center for Education Statistics today released a "first look" at a new report looking at public school teacher attrition and mobility (entitled, with typical bureaucratic poetry, "Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Year")

Our data set is centered on around 155,000 teachers who began teaching in 2007-2008, looking at them through 2011-2012, so this is a data slice that shows us what has happened to the profession most recently, but not, it should be noted, since the CCSS test bomb dropped on classrooms all over the country.

The "first look" is brief and loaded with charts, so you should really go take a look at it yourself, but here are some highlights to whet your appetite.

The basic raw attrition rate is far better than the conventional wisdom about half of new teachers leaving within the first five years. NCES figures say that by year five, 17.3% of the Class of 07-08 has left the classroom.

When you break that attrition down by categories, you find

* men left in a higher percentage than women
* non-white teachers left in higher percentages than white
* teachers with a base pay of over $40K left at a vastly lesser rate than everyone else

A third of teachers with less than a bachelor degree left within the first year, but almost half of the teachers with "higher than a master's degree" left immediately.

Teachers who were not assigned mentors left at roughly twice the rate of teachers with mentors.

So if you're hiring teachers, a black man with a PhD who's going to be paid less than $40K is your worst bet for classroom longevity.

I'm not surprised to see that teachers with alternative certificates or no certificates at all were more likely to have left. Elementary teachers stuck around in greater percentages than secondary teachers (proving either high school jobs are harder or elementary teachers are tougher; as a high school teacher married to an elementary teacher, I am prepared to offer no theory on this matter).

But I was surprised to see that the attrition rate for city/suburban vs. town/rural was almost exactly the same. Town/rural starts out losing faster, but by year five had evened out.

Less surprising-- finding that schools with over 50% free and reduced lunch rates had higher attrition rates. But the difference was not as huge as you might have predicted (18.6% vs 15.7%)

Folks will poke through this data for a variety of purposes. For instance, this may be the place to ask if young teachers are fleeing or being pushed out. For this groups movers (changing to a new job), 2 in 5 were involuntary after five years. For leavers, it's more complicated. Involuntary departures varied from year to year, with a peak of 35.5% after the second year and a low of 19.9% after the fourth. I'd be curious to see if that means that pre-tenure departures through counseling or firing are actually happening out there, but it appears there's more number crunching and data diddling to do.

There's plenty of appendage regarding methodology and technical explanations that yield paragraphs like this one:

For the BTLS first wave, weights are obtained directly from the 2007–08 SASS, since all interviewed beginning teachers in SASS were eligible for BTLS. On the BTLS data file, the final weight for the first wave is called W1TFNLWGT, which is called TFNLWGT on the SASS data file. 

So I'll leave it to wiser data crunchers to pry this apart a bit more. This is data that appears to be worth a careful, considered look.

Did the rate get better after the former 50% rate was bandied about, or was that rate (which was always an estimate) just not right? Have the forces of reform changed the ebb and flow of the profession? And have attrition rates been changed by the past three years of test-and-punish? Does this mean that the fear of displaced young teachers is misplaced, or are we over-worried about chasing people away? And exactly how does this new data really supports or attacks any of the old arguments? I don't think we know any of these things yet, but now that we have actual hard data, we can start to figure them out and move past our "best guesses" of the past.

In the meantime, I would be pleased to find that my beloved profession is not hemorrhaging as badly as has been presumed. There are too few male and/or minority teachers-- that doesn't seem to have "changed." But I don't really care if this data make it easier or harder for reformsters or the rest of us to make our cases-- I want to see teaching be a stable, satisfying profession, and I want to deal with the issues that we actually have, and not the ones we imagine. Losing 1 in 5 teachers is nothing to brag about. So let the dissecting of this report begin.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Merryl Tisch Shows How Test Supporters Get It Wrong

New York Chancellor of the Board of Regents Meryl Tisch stopped by All In with Chris Hayes to avoid answering some pointed questions about high stakes testing and the opt out movement in New York. She had the additional disadvantage of sitting beside Diane Ravitch, who did answer questions and made Tisch look even slipperier by comparison, but I think Tisch's appearance is a quick, capsuled look at what promoters of high stakes testing get wrong.

After opening with some background (Atlanta convictions, rising parent opposition, left-and-right wing hatred for Big Standardized Tests), Hayes notes that New York's opt out numbers are huger than ever and turns to Tisch.
Hayes: When you see the reports of opting out, including the high strong numbers from some areas, do you think "People are crazy" or "We are doing something wrong"?

Tisch does not think people are crazy (phew!) and believes that people "should act in what they perceive to be the best interests of their children." That's an important construction because like many BS Test fans, Tisch is also a charter school fan, which puts her in the awkward position of believing that parents should opt out of public school, but not public school testing. Choice is only okay sometimes.

So why the push back? "Perhaps we have not been clear enough in describing the intent of the test." So, opt out is a PR problem, because if people disagree with us, it could only be because they don't understand how right we are. So what is the intent of the test?

"The intent of the test is to give a snapshot of performance and allow parents to know where their children are at any given point in their educational career as compared to their peers."

And there's your first problem, because that doesn't even make sense. "Snapshot" and "at any given point in time" do not go together. I can't see how my child is doing at any point in time because I only have a snapshot from one particular point in time.

Tisch moves on immediately to asserting that income inequality is directly tied to the achievement gap (which is actually the BS Test score gap) for our poor students, and she starts waving the Wait Let Me Speak hand at Hayes because he is completely ready to call her on that piece of baloney, so she squeezes in that poor students can't make more money unless they have access to high quality education. Hayes calls her on her correlation-causation fallacy, but I'd like to call her on her fallacious equating of high quality education and high stakes snapshot testing. What does taking the BS Test have to do with access to high quality education?

The reformster answer (which Tisch doesn't get to) is that BS Test results allow us to target the students who are struggling. The problem here is that 1) we already know where they are and 2) after years of targeting them with BS Testing, we have yet to actually get them additional resources to help them do better.

Ravitch gets her turn and uses it to point out that tests are not vaccinations and these tests are not useful because the results provide no useful information. "There is no diagnostic value to the test," somehow prompts Tisch to smirk, like she has caught the help trying to act like they know how caviar really tastes. Hayes notes that Tisch clearly has something she wants to share with the rest of the class, and she unveils Test Purpose #2.

The tests are a diagnostic tool for curriculum and instruction development on the state level, and a way of making sure the taxpayers get their money's worth.

In other words, a completely different purpose for the tests than the one she offered about two minutes earlier. It's now a snapshot of how our children, schools, and systems are doing-- for the taxpayers. So that business about info for the parents was, what-- just spitballing? Because if this is the actual purpose of the test then 1) what's wrong with the NAEP and 2) why is it necessary to test every child every year?

Hayes points out that Tisch gave a non-response to the observation that the tests are not diagnostically useful for students, parents or children, and she insists that she be allowed to insert a non-response to that point. When parents opt out it messes things up. Also, she was in a doctor's office where a parent wanted to compare their child to a growth chart. Like the vaccination analogy, this is bogus for many reasons. I'll just pick one: When I weigh my child, I get a full picture of how much my child weighs, but when my child takes a BS Test and I get just the score, I get only the tiniest sliver of a slice of how well my student is doing in school.

As for the diagnostic value of the tests, Tisch asserts (with her asserty hand waving before her) that school districts report "all the time" that they make decisions about curriculum around the test results. Which certainly proves that schools will teach to the test as best they can, particularly when threatened with punitive responses to the results. This does not prove that either test results or the following curriculum adjustments serve the educational interests of the students. She also says words about how the ability to glean specific info from these tests is really important, which is not remotely the same as proving that it can actually be done.

Hayes asks Ravitch if there's a right way to do test-driven accountability or if it's just the wrong tree at which to be woofing. "Wrong tree," says Ravitch. You can't do the wrong thing the right way. The model is wrong. We are the most overtested nation in the world.

What would Tisch like to say to parents?

Tisch would like parents to understand that this is all the union's fault, and that if teacher evals hadn't been linked to the tests, they would all be testing away happily. Children have just been trapped in a labor dispute between the governor and teacher.

In about six minutes, Tisch manages to showcase a full range of pro-test arguments, all specious.
If the goal is to give parents information about their student, why does the test return so little data? And what difference does it make if other students opt out?

If the goal is to give teachers and schools actionable data to inform instruction, why return so little data, so late?

If the goal is to give taxpayers and policymakers feedback about how the system is doing, testing every child every year is by far the least cost-effective method.

If the goal is to identify and diagnose troubled schools for intervention, why don't bad scores trigger a release of additional resources for the identified school?

And why do pro-testers never, ever provide solid data about how well the tests actually measure any of the things they supposedly measure?

Tisch can blame the opt out movement on the union and politics all she wants; the reality on the ground is that more and more parents have had enough. The BS Test boosters are going to need better talking points.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

Baltimore's Katrina

Well, that didn't take long.

This appeared on twitter
And in my inbox was an email from the folks at The Center for Education Reform, a hard-core charter promoting group.

They shared a story of a mom who was happy to tell how getting her kid into a charter saved his life, and charters had improved her neighborhood. She was talking about DC, but the writer was careful to draw the parallels:

She noted the people in her community haven’t changed since the mid-90s, but school choice has empowered them to make better decisions and aspire for something greater. The nation is watching Baltimore clean up from yesterday’s destruction caused in large part by young schoolchildren that have no choice in a city where violence looks a lot like D.C. did twenty years ago.

Katrina was a golden opportunity for charter promoters to take over a whole city's school system.

Now, the boiling over of Baltimore will apparently be treated as another marketing tool. It's a two-fer; not only are the riots and racial unrest a disaster that trash the city, but they are a disaster created by public schools.

Luckily, charter schools save cities.

Not jobs. Not reining in a berserk police department. Not a reinvestment in the public schools that already exist. Not a concerted effort to reverse a cycle of social, political and economic injustice that has chewed neighborhoods to bits. Not sitting down with the people who live in the beleagured sections of the city. Not any ideas that might cost money and not turn a profit.

No, we need charter schools, stat. If black boys spent their youth in charter schools learning to line up, sit still, speak properly, and offer no excuses, the Baltimore riots would never happen.

Disaster capitalists have to be ready to jump on the next disruptive opportunity. Looks like the riots in Baltimore could be just the thing.

Testing Minorities: Hard Lessons for Public Ed Supporters

How can they do that? Don't they realize they're just hurting themselves? Don't they realize that their actions will make it harder for them to get what they want?

No, I'm not repeating what some folks say about the riots in Baltimore.

I'm talking about what some public education supporters say about the advocates for civil rights and students with disabilities who support the Big Standardized Tests.

The word keeps coming out of DC-- the BS Tests are unlikely to go away, and one reason is that those advocates absolutely support testing and much that goes with it. And many of us who advocate for public education keep scratching our heads and declaring ourselves confused, mystified, even angry.

And yet, as Baltimore becomes one more place in America to erupt in acts of violence and rioting and fighting and ugly anger (all well covered by the news outlets) as well as equally passionate outpourings of love and support and desire to seek justice without destruction (which make much less compelling television, so you have to scan the internets for those)-- as all that happens, we get it. We express our carefully parsed feelings of condemnation for the destruction, but support and understanding for the frustration born of systemic racist abuse and oppression. So we post the MLK quotes and the Langston Hughes and all the ways we know to say that we get it.

And yet we remain mystified about the support for testing.

I have been as guilty as anyone. But today I heard myself talking about Baltimore with my students, saying something I've said a gazillion times-- people want to be heard, and if they don't think they are being heard they will keep raising their voice until they are, until they can't be ignored, even until they are screaming. If you want it to stop, you have to listen. Really listen, without making excuses or defending yourself, until they're done. And the longer you haven't been listening, the longer you have to listen before the conversation can get back to a place of equilibrium.

Even if you are absolutely certain you are right, you still have to listen.

The supporters of testing have told us, repeatedly, why they want the BS Tests-- because they are afraid of their children becoming invisible, forgotten, warehoused, ignored.

Supporters of public education have often failed to listen. Often. Oh, I've explained all the reasons that BS Tests aren't the answer, the ways in which I think they have been misled. This is not in your best interest. We even accuse leaders of their organizations of having taken enough Gates money to cloud their judgment. None of that shows that I have listened.

You know who's done a good job of listening? Reformsters.

Co-opting the language of civil rights is not just about co-opting a movement. It's about using language that shows that they hear the concerns.

Supporters of public education can't just say, "Trust us," because the history of public ed is not one to inspire trust. We have marginalized people. We have ignored people. Stacey Patton's blistering piece in Dame is a reminder that, to some folks, it certainly looks like many white folks didn't get fully exercised about educational injustice until it came to their schools. For some of us, the experience of reform been, "We were doing perfectly okay on our own, and suddenly these guys swooped down and tried to take everything over." For others it has been, "We were struggling with a failing system, and suddenly these guys swooped down and promised to make things better."

In my desire to protect and preserve the promise of public education, I can forget sometimes just how badly US public education has sometimes served poor and minority students and their communities.

It's not enough to say, "Those guys are not looking out for you." We can't just point out what reformsters do wrong. We have to talk about what we'll do right, what we'll do differently from the past.

I don't want to oversimplify this. Lots of public ed supporters get the social justice piece, too, and lots of social justice fighters know full well who and what the reformsters are. And while it's my style to write in a "we" voice, I don't want to presume to speak for people who are not me. But I am remembering that when people are behaving in a way that seems senseless to me, that's on me-- there's always sense to it, and if something seems senseless, that's because I haven't listened or looked well enough to find the sense.

The reformster use of civil rights language gets traction because there are real concerns and issues that need to be addressed, and many of us are not addressing them. In the last several days I heard many public ed advocates reacting to the news the leaders who support testing by saying that we need to get to them, to find out who they are, to get them to understand. I'm thinking we also need to listen to them, hear them, understand them.Yes, I know there are opportunists all around on all sides. But you can't take advantage unless there's a need to take advantage of, and I, for one, am someone who too easily slips into attacking the problem instead of helping to look for the solution.

Reformsters have made promises. They may have been cynical promises, designed for marketing show, but they've made them. While many of us speaking out for public education may not have the kind of power that the reformsters do, that does not mean we cannot fight for promises of our own. And we can certainly listen.

Nothing I've said is meant to suggest that reformster programs are not piles of baloney. But in the rush to point out how baloney-like they are, it's important not to also suggest that the concerns of the poor, minority, and special needs folks are baloney, too.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

WSJ: Fordham's Four Kinds of Wrong

Mike Petrilli and Aaron Churchill took to the Wall Street Journal Monday to present four kinds of wrong while promoting a new Fordham report to be released today.

Before we even get into what they said or why it's baloney, let's open with the caveat that they themselves left out of the article. The study looks at the benefits of closing schools and was done in Ohio, where the Fordham operates charters that directly benefit from the closing schools. So this is, once again, a study touting the benefits of cigarette smoking brought to you by your friends at the Tobacco Institute.

Fordham's claim is simple-- when schools are closed and the students are moved to a new school, those students gain forty-nine extra days of learning. Closing the school and moving the students raises the student achievement.

That's the claim. How is it baloney? Let me count the ways.

1) "Days of learning" is not a thing.

While this concept is frequently used, I've never encountered its use by anyone except reformsters trying to make a case for Reform d'jour. I have never seen it used by a serious researcher. While that may just mean I'm not well-read enough (you can edify me in the comments), I'm still unconvinced by it as a measure.

First, it assumes that learning is a simple linear progression, like I-79 from Pittsburgh to Erie. That strikes me as a view of education so simplistic as to be useless. What is a Day of Learning, exactly, and do we distinguish between a Monday of Learning or a Friday of Learning. How about the First Day of School, which is pretty slow on the learning, even compared to a Last Day Before Vacation Day of Learning.

Second, like VAM, it assumes the power to correctly predict exactly how much learning a hypothetical student in an alternate universe would have achieved. In other words, I can't say that Chris achieved three "extra" days of learning unless I know how many days of learning Chris would have achieved in that alternate universe.

2) We're talking about test scores. That's it.

The scores on Big Standardized Tests that cover just two subject areas are not a  valid proxy for student achievement or learning in general. Reformsters like to talk about "student achievement" because that sounds like a broad, beautiful, whole-child measure. Who doesn't want to see students achieve?

But we're not talking about the whole child or real, robust measures of the complex web of skills and knowledge possessed by complicated individual human beings. We're talking about scores from a single test on two subjects. Even if it's a great test (and there really is no reason to think it is, but let's play the if game), that's not a measure of student achievement.

And when we're talking about tests scores, it's always important to remember one thing-- nobody has ever displayed a convincing causal link between test scores and anything. Nobody has ever filled in the blanks in "When a student gets higher test scores, that will lead later in life to ________" with anything other than unsupported baloney.

3) We're talking about very modest and mysterious gains.

We're talking about a move from the 20th to the 22nd or 23rd percentile. This is not a dramatic increase. This is a blip.

Put another way-- if the school that we decided to close had posted this kind of gain in the last year before closure, would the Fordham been out in front, standing in front of the bulldozers hollering "Stop! No!! You can't close this school because they are showing dramatic improvement!!" Would they declare that this climb in percentile ranking was enough to declare the turnaround of a failing school successful?

Now, the report must feature some complicated math, because the Coming Attractions trailer also claims 49 extra days of learning over three years, which would be a over a quarter of a year-- how does a blip translate to that much learning.

And if the students displayed a two or three percentile grade, does that not mean that other students were pushed down in percentile rankings? Did transferring students from the closed school make students in the receiving school worse?

4) We're ignoring some fairly significant factors.

Even some reform boosters recognize the value of social capital, and there is research to back it up. Ties to community provide a strong and valuable influence over the trajectory of a child's life, and nothing gives a student strong community ties like a neighborhood school.

So ripping a child away from a neighborhood school is not simply, as Petrilli and Churchill put it, "politically dangerous"-- it's a policy that comes with tremendous cost to the community and the students. It's politically dangerous because people understand that it comes at a huge educational and social cost. It cuts the child loose from a community support system while hollowing out the heart of that community. It tells us something about the expectations of American public schooling that we never used to say "community schools" for the same reason we don't order "wet water" in a restaurant. A community base is the foundation of US public education.

In plain English

Fordham is proposing, with plenty of bells and whistles and pretty filigree, that we close community schools, and uproot and disperse the students of those communities, so that they will score a few points better on math and reading tests.

How can this possibly be more cost-effective than investing resources and support in making the community school better? Why not spend every dollar and cent that you were going to spend reconfiguring administration and distribution of students, transportation costs, materials cost and the human cost to the social capital of the community-- why not invest all that in the school you've already got? What are you doing at this magical new school that you could not do at the school that already exists-- without gutting a community, uprooting children, and blasting away whatever social capital you may have?

Closing schools and dispersing the students weakens the community, weakens the forces that are needed to help students rise and advance. It is exactly the wrong thing to do, and therefor, proposing to do so ought to come with a pretty convincing list of large and transformative benefits. Fordham is not making that case, not even remotely.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Randi, LIly, and Diane at NPE

It was the marquee event of the NPE convention. Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten sitting down with Diane Ravitch in front of a stuffed-full ballroom. I did not take notes, and the video is not up to rewatch yet, but I want to put my impressions down before they fade too much.

An organizer made one more fruitless attempt to get a room filled with teachers to behave, because when it comes to behaving like good students, teachers are the worst. But as he did so, he informed us that 1,000 people were already online to watch-- so we had to start on time.

Xian Barrett did the introductions, which had to be just a bit nervewracking, but he set a nice tone-- not too formal, but still respecting the weight of the occasion. Nicely done.

My expectations were not high. Both Garcia and Weingarten have carefully staked out and fully fleshed out positions, and while they are the faces of their unions, they are also tied to a big bundle of leadership teams and union bureaucracy. I did not imagine for a minute that either was suddenly going to throw up her hands and say, "Yeah, you know what? I've been wrong about that. I'm going to go ahead and reverse my union's position on the spot."

But it was my first time to see either in person, and I was interested to see how that played out.

Both came in full professional labor leader snappy dress and were whisked to one side moments before the start to don official NPE t-shirts. Garcia by far beats all comes in a hair contest-- it is just a magnificent mane, as iconic as an Elvis DA flip.

The discussion got off to a somewhat plastic start-- Ravitch asked a question and each leader in her turn launched into full-on campaign mode, which led to Ravitch's imposition of a three minute time limit on answers. Ravitch was herself as moderator-- one minute she's a scrappy political veteran and the next she's your grandmother learning how to use a smartphone app.

My not-high expectations were met. Garcia displayed a great grasp of how privatization, crushing unions, dismantling democracy, and test-and-punish all fit together into a larger picture that is bad for teachers, students, and public education. But she either can't or won't see how Common Core is part and parcel of that same drive to break up public education, and her enthusiasm for the Core (there's a great app for the Core! whee!) is both disappointing and intellectually puzzling. Hating testing and loving the Core is like going to the pound and saying, "I want to take home a puppy, but only the end that smiles and licks you on the face. I don't want to take home the end that poops."

Both were support-ish of the opt out movement (Parents should be able to do it; teachers should be able to talk about it). But neither was very strong in denouncing the enshrinement of testing in the ESEA rewrites. You can read a full version of what were essentially Garcia's remarks which boil down to "Less testing, less punishment for test results, and no using tests for purposes for which they weren't created." She is not so much envisioning a world without the Big Standardized Test as a world where the Big Assessment is so swell that everyone welcomes it cheerfully (in part because her imaginary assessment will cover what she considers the good parts of Common Core). She might as well envision a future in which students will ride to school on the backs of brightly colored dinosaurs. The assessment she imagines cannot and will not exist on a national scale.

I did hear Weingarten say one interesting thing (well, two, if you count the part where she said that she had no particular desire to marry her partner). What I believe I heard her say was that testing "has killed" or "has destroyed" the promise of Common Core. I'll be checking the tape-- if I'm correct, then Weingarten just declared Common Core dead, which is not as good as repudiation, but I'll still take it. Her hardest question actually came afterwards, when Mercedes Schneider asked her about that damn robocall to help Cuomo (let's not pretend it wasn't that).

The big moment came with the agreement by both that their unions would no longer take money from Gates. I don't imagine for a moment that they did so on the spot (or that they have the authority, really, to make that decision), but it was still a nice moment.

It was interesting to see their personal styles on display. I have to love Garcia for being quick-witted and snarky; plus, she speaks in a manner that seems completely authentic, like a regular human being. Weingarten is more of an old-school labor leader who suddenly erupts into a hollering bluster that I expect is a measure technique for whipping a crow up into a frenzy, but on Sunday seemed a bit affected and at times over-the-top. But I was born in New England, so maybe that's me.

I know lots of folks who watched from home and in the ballroom were disappointed. I wasn't, but as I said, I wasn't expecting much. Large national unions cannot turn on a dime, and labor leaders live with political realities (we may not like it, but I have heard multiple times from multiple directions that mandatory testing is untouchable in ESEA in part because advocates for civil rights and students with disabilities support testing fervently).

Their support of Common Core is misguided and wrong. Their opposition to test-driven reform-- but not the actual tests-- is befuddling. They have some great things to say about building and defending union power-- but having the power would mean a great deal more if they'd use it for something useful. I haven't liked their position on Common Core and testing

But here's the thing to like about Sunday at NPE.

They were there.

The two leaders of the largest teacher unions in the country agreed to come explain themselves and answer questions in front of a houseful of people who were vocal advocates for public education. Think back less than two years to Dennis Van Roekel dismissing NEA member opposition to Common Core with a flip, "Well, what do you propose to do instead?" That's not where NEA is now.

Even if you're just paying lip service-- you can't do it if you don't know what the answer is supposed to be. Two years ago our union leaders didn't even know that. Before giving her answer about testing, Weingarten acknowledged that some people were going to boo (they didn't, and there wasn't much booing, but there was plenty of hissing at some of the worst)-- she knows that her positions are not popular with advocates for public education.

Two years ago the Network for Public Education barely existed, and the support for public education that it represents was fragmented and invisible to the folks doing political calculus. Not that long ago national union leaders could have easily dismissed NPE and the viewpoint it represents. Today, they cannot.

On so many fronts, the folks who stand up for public education are becoming harder to ignore (looking at you, NY opt outs). Reformsters are spending money to try to rebut and respond to public education advocates. In fact, Peter Cunningham of Education Post, the heavily financed pro-reformster rapid-response PR organization was also at the convention this weekend.

You know the drill. First they ignore you. But eventually, they can't. The movement to defend and support public education has become strong enough that the union presidents came to us to talk about it. Yes, they brought much of their same old baggage. But they came.

As several speakers noted this weekend, this is a long haul. We are not going to turn any of the large organizations involved quickly or abruptly. But we can help them evolve. And the best place to start is with our natural allies, and THAT can't start until they show up to talk to us. Who knows-- maybe next time they'll come to listen to us, too. Baby steps.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Corinthian Is Done

It's final call for the leading titans of for-profit colleging:

SANTA ANA, Calif., April 26, 2015 – Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (Nasdaq: COCO) today announced that the Company has ceased substantially all operations and discontinued instruction at its remaining 28 ground campuses.

It has been a long hard road in the past year for these guys, and the helpful folks at USED have done their best to make sure that nobody's investment was severely damaged (well, except may the investment of time and debt put in by Corinthian students). Recently a group of students have even staged a sort of debt strike, and while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has already asked the courts to grant relief, and the Department of Justice has reportedly said that the Department of Education has "complete discretion" to make the loans evaporate, so far, much of that debt it still alive and kicking former Corinthian students in the butt.

What will this mean to current students? The press release says that company is looking for other outfits to provide "continuing educational opportunities for its approximately 16,000 students." Given Corinthian's previous practice of hiring graduates to pump up placement numbers, I shudder to think what this might mean.

But this sucks mightily for the students who were presumably hoping they might get an education in before the roof collapsed.

In the end, Corinthian blames the feds for their lack of success in getting anyone to take over some of the chain. Apparently the feds have attached some penalties to the college's assets, including their former students, and nobody is in the mood to pay Corinthian's fines for them.

Would this have looked less ugly if USED had moved sooner? Hard to say. But this final collapse of Corinthian is a one more good lesson on how the Invisible Hand of the Free Market causes a lot of damage when it waves around the educational marketplace. Not just to the investor and business backers (though one would hope they'd be burned enough to remember the lesson), but the damage done to the students who were caught between being continually bilked and being tossed out of school with literally nothing but debt and lost time to show for it. A school that can abandon its students in the middle of their education is not a school-- it's a scam.

One can only hope that the USED will finally do the decent thing and make these bunco victims free of their debt. The feds can afford to do it, and it would be the least they can do to help rescue these men and women who were really trying to do the right thing and get skills to get ahead.

The Resistance Meets on Weekends

There is a great deal to try to absorb about this weekend's meeting if the Network for Public Education, and my brain is a little stretched as it is.

Some of it will take time, because the Drake Hotel is beautiful, but its hamster-driven wi-fi system and my not-exactly-cutting edge tech are not getting along well at all. In some ways I did better at following last year's conference from home. I am also a little gobsmacked by the number of people who know me. I knew that a number of people read some of what I put up, but I'm not sure how many people really, really read me. It's both amazing and humbling.

I have met so many of my own blogging heroes and I could use another couple of days to track down and talk some more (I still haven't got exchange more than a couple of words with the extraordinary Mercedes Schneider.)

But time is limited, and my exceptionally wonderful wife and will have to jet out of here right after I do my own song and dance later.

Because the resistance meets on weekends.

It is extraordinary and heartening to see and hear and meet all these folks from all across the country and so many different settings. It is also extraordinary that all of these voices for public education have actual jobs. Other jobs.

The reformsters have, collectively, a massive, hugely well-funded full time staff. The guys at the think tanks don't have to do their position papers later in the evening after they grade those third period assignments. The lobbyists for the corporations don't have to squeeze visits to legislators into their lunch hours. Even folks like the bureaucrats at the USED or the people in some state education offices, the people who should be working for public education, aren't-- too many of them are devoting their professional lives to dismantling it.

The reformsters work at it every day. That's what they do, full time, often for pretty good pay (which means they can also do it untroubled by thoughts about how to pay for braces and college loans).

But the teachers and parents and even students who work to preserve and protect America's awesome public education system for the most part already have a full time job. They aren't paid to do this. They aren't paid to blog, organize, speak up, write letters, make phone calls. They all do it in addition to their regular work.

And so the resistance meets on weekends.

Not since a bunch of colonial farmers picked up their squirrel guns to fight one of the biggest professional armies in the world has such a army of unpaid part-timers taken on such a huge group of well-paid professional policy-shapers. (And really, the colonial army wasn't very great).

Of course, the irony here is that while we are amateurs in the field of shaping, twisting, and spinning policy, they are the amateurs in the actual field of education. They may have the tools, the money, the hired manpower, and the paths of power on their side, but we are the one who know the territory.

It is amazing to see 600 people come together on their own time (and their own dime) to stand up for public education. The resistance may need to meet on weekends, but it's strong, and it's ready for a marathon run. The reformsters are tourists, and they'll move on.

The resistance meets on weekends, but it will carry the week.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Not So Friendly Skies

Blogging will be sporadic this weekend, as I'm coming to you from the Drake Hotel in Chicago, quite possibly the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in in my life, but still in an earlier century when it comes to wi-fi (everyone remembers the steam powered wi-fi of the 1890s). Also, I'll be composing on my surface, so be prepared for even worse typos than usual.

The plane was delayed in Cleveland last night, and as we finally taxied down the runway, there was some soft of rhythmic thudding as if a large moose were caught in the wheels, or possibly a Studebaker. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on how calming it is to know that as we defy the laws of gravity and fling our frail little bodies through miles of sky, we are in a fragile tin can designed, built, maintained and piloted by people who are actual trained professionals, not amateur dabblers.

If you are going to fly me somewhere, I need more than your good intentions or really cool ideas that came to you in the shower. It will not comfort me to know that you were really successful at playing shuffleboard or running a widget factory or just moving money around into it swelled into a giant pile.

Nor do I need you to stand next to me at the airport and berate me for not having enough grit to propel myself through the air. Nor is it useful to tell me that I have no business using gravity as an excuse and don't I believe that people can fling themselves from Cleveland to Chicago.

The "friendly skies" motto is powerful precisely because we know the sky is not friendly-- particularly when there are tens of thousands of feet of it between us and the hard, hard ground. Toni Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon that if you surrender to the air, you can ride it, but I like that more as a metaphor than as practical advice. If I'm going to surrender to the air, it will be in the company of trained professionals using tools created by trained professionals. The very least we can do for our children when we try to connect them with an education is to promise them the same.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tucker Searches for Misplaced Standards

Marc Tucker has been working at education reform even before it was cool (and highly lucrative). While he's best remembered by some folks as the author of the infamous Dear Hillary letter (a 1992 missive that lays out a vision of a centrally organized cradle-to-career pipeline), I've often found him willing to take shots based on what he thinks, rather than what side he's supposed to be on, and that's a quality I always respect.

But it also seems true that folks Of a Certain Age (say, mine-- and Tucker is almost twenty years older) to succumb to the temptation to write screeds on the topic of Kids These Days and Going To Hell in a Handbasket. Tucker has handily combined the two in a EdWeek post entitled "Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?"

Tucker is honest about his purpose here. In a previous column, he had piled up a big batch o' reports suggesting that the American sky is falling-- college students can't write, textbooks have been dumbed down, colleges are teaching what high schools used to "and not doing it very well."

How could this be? What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years. All I can do is speculate on how and why that happened. Here goes...

I've been known to do a little speculating myself, so I think it's a noble goal. I just happen to think that much of Tucker's speculation is off the mark. But he is spinning an interesting narrative here, so let's see if I can speculate any holes in it.

Chapter I: Death of the Middle Class

Back around 1970, says storyteller Tucker, the US was enjoying prosperity and business mightiness. But then Asian countries challenged us with equally high-skilled workers for less money. Perhaps. What I remember from the time period is US corporate leadership started making cheap crap and trying to pocket money instead of spending it keeping technologically up to speed. US workers may or may not have kept pace with Japanese workers, but they certainly had no control over decisions to make the AMC Pacer, Ford Pinto, or the Pinto's more ridiculous cousin, the Mercury Bobcat. Nor did workers have any say over the steel industry's decision to just keep using the tired tech that had served them for 100 years. But US workers paid the price for management's money-losing ideas.

Tucker also notes the rise of automation in the march to stagnant wages, the loss of men in the employed workforce, and unwed mothers. Yes, he's going to go there.

Put them all together and they spell a crushed, shrinking and demoralized middle class, more poor children, and more children in one-parent homes. Bottom line: more children showing up at school bringing problems with them.

That birthy thing gets complicated. Note these two charts:

Meanwhile, more people are waiting longer to get married even as the marriage rate drops. While some folks view singlehood (and other naughty lifestyle choices) as a cause of poverty, it seems far more likely that the train runs the other way-- people put off marriage until they think they can afford it.

Chapter 2: Grade Inflation Hits

All these poor kids hit school at the same time as a powerful wave of Everyone Must Go To College swept through the culture. Blue color work became cause for "fear and shame" and so everybody has to get Junior into college.

In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.  So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.

I think Tucker probably has part of a point. What he skims over is the source of that tremendous pressure to succeed, in particular the kind of pressure generated by a government that says all students must be ready for college or their schools will be defunded and their teachers fired.

Chapter 3: Teachers Start Sucking

Teacher status declined from 1970 forward, and women and minorities could find better jobs (finally), so "the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined." I entered college in 1975, so I'm going to assume that he doesn't mean me.But I am confused by this narrative. We have more minority candidates entering teaching than ever. And when women couldn't do anything else-- well, my mom graduated from Keene State Teacher College in the mid-fifties, and she could get a job anywhere anytime she wanted. But that somehow got us the best and the brightest? I'm just not sure how tat worked, exactly.

But Tucker says that the literacy level of teachers was slipping, somehow, and so they had less mastery of the content. And I'm thinking about my mom and my wife, both elementary teachers, and while both are pretty damn smart and literate, I don't think their ability to excel as students in a classroom was the quality that students most valued in them. This point always rests on the notion that how well people take tests is a measure of how good a teacher they'll be. Is there anybody who has never, ever encountered a teacher who was a genius with total control of her subject matter, but who was still a less-than-awesome teacher? I'm pretty sure this whole point rests on measuring oranges to see how high the apple trees grow.

Chapter 4: The Accountability Movement Incentivizes Sucking

Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement.

That sentence tells you most of what you need to know about Tucker's view of Ed Reform History. His conclusion here is partly correct-- most of us can recall the happy days of NCLB when our state would tweak test content and schedules in order to make it look like test results were going up. Tucker is correct. It happened, and not, as some suggest, because politicians wanted to look good, but because schools wanted to avoid punishment that would have hampered their missions.

But all of that only matters if you believe that high-stakes testing is either a driver or reflection of what a school is actually accomplishing. But the Big Standardized Tests don't measure even a sliver of what a school is actually doing, and they "drive instruction" only to the extent that they drive real instruction out of the classroom to make room for test prep. Tucker, like many ed critics, overlooks one other reason that states and schools set out to game the BS Test system-- because they knew that simply doing a better job at teaching students was not going to help.

Chapter 5: The Teacher Pipeline Breaks

Excellent veteran teachers bailed. And top students, "seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions," avoided teaching careers. College teacher prep programs are dropping faster than a scary elevator ride at Disneyworld. Meanwhile, colleges have been driven to desperate measures, and will accept anyone with a pulse and a pile of money. Other nations became choosier; the US did not.

Meanwhile, a new culprit emerged-- US News and World Report. According to Tucker, their college rankings touched off an arms race to spend money on frivolities like fancy dining halls and student mental health clinics. Kids these days!! Ironically, Tucker faults the magazine because there are no agreed-upon metrics for rating college programs. And yet he believes that there are clear metrics for measuring possible future teacher greatness. This all seems to me like calling Santa bunk while holding fast to a belief in the Easter Bunny.

But his conclusion is that colleges lowered standards because they needed the money. Which on the one hand I can buy but on the other hand, when was the magical time when people flunked out of college right and left because it was so tough?

Chapter 6: In Which I Am Genuinely Surprised (The Draft!)

I have read a great deal about education reform, but Tucker has a theory that I've never encountered before. The end of the draft marked the end, for him, of the nation's biggest vocational training program, with local programs soon to follow due to the accountability movement. So... raise standards by bringing back the draft...?

Bottom Line

What this story comes down to is that the United States, having led the world in educational attainment for more than a century, thereby enabling it to produce the world's best-educated workforce, has, since the 1970s, made no gains at all in either attainment or quality, while close to 30 other countries, some of them abjectly poor in the 1970s, have managed to outperform us on both quality and quantity of education, many by a country mile.  Even more damning, we appear to have lowered our standards for our college students to the standards we used to demand of our high school students and, at the same time, to have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system. 

Kids These Days are dumb lazy slackers and because we've loosened up society to accommodate their slackiness, everything is Going to Hell in a Handbasket. Back In My Day, we walked to school uphill both ways in the snow all year, and we liked it, because we had high standards back then.

Tucker has skipped some points like, for instance, a detailed and data-driven description of the hallowed years in which the US led the world in these educational standards. We could also do with a link between these alleged high standards that we once had and, well, anything. If we get all eighth graders to do calculus, the clear result for our nation will be... what?

Tucker has some points. Accountability has pretty much been a disaster for everybody (except disaster profiteers), and the economic shift in our country has been very, very hard on many of our citizens, making it harder for our children to get the best advantages in life, including education.

And we could certainly use leaders who were better, particularly when we consider that much of disruption of the last forty-five years, from the industrial crash of the seventies to the economic disasters of the 2000s, has been human-created. Here's the thing-- I don't think the leaders of the car and steel industries, nor the banksters of the Great Recession, would have avoided all that mess if they had had better SAT scores or a better GPA in college.

Tucker reminds me of a person who sits fearfully in his house, hears a gurgle from the kitchen sink drain, and worries that it means that a burglar is coming in the second floor window. Or a chicken who gets hit with an acorn and fears the sky is falling.  It's not that there aren't real and serious issues, problems that need to be addressed. But he is seeing connections between these issues and other factors that have nothing to do with them. The danger with Tucker is that his core belief, stated through much of his work, is that we need to control everything so that we can make all come out as it should. Any time you find somebody who thinks that kind of control is a good thing and that he totally knows how to manage it, you have found somebody who is dangerous. When you find somebody who believes he can control the entire machine but doesn't really know how the parts fit together, you have found somebody who could make a serious mess. I'm really glad that Marc Tucker is in the world, but I'm even more glad that he's not in charge.

Nicholas Kristof's Tourist Balls

When a tourist is visiting a place, just passing through, but they feel that they must share their infinite wisdom with the natives and tell the natives How Things Should Be Done-- that takes big balls. Big tourist balls.

Your second cousin Fred who came to stay for a long weekend and wanted to re-arrange your entire kitchen? Tourist balls. The summer people who want to re-arrange the downtown of that quaint village in which they live one month out of twelve? Tourist balls. The European colonizers who wanted to remake all African civilization in their own image? Huge tourist balls.

Nicholas Kristof was in the New York Times yesterday announcing that it's time for reformsters to move on.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.

And at this point I was already steaming. My most immediate response was, "Ooooh! Iddums all tuckered out?? Poor iddle iddums." But I pressed on.

He offers three reasons that early childhood will be the new black next season.
First, tiny minds are malleable, so we can better shape them into what we want. All we have to do is "coach" parents to "stimulate" their children. And, without naming it, he uses Raj Chetty's totally bogus research that suggests that even though it looks like the results of early childhood boosts disappear in the teens, they actually reappear in the twenties in the form of cash. [Update: Kristof asserts, via Twitter, that I've missed the reference here. Fair enough. Doesn't make me any more convinced. ]

Second,  he cites all the research and anecdotal evidence that charters make magical gains appear with poor kids. Well, he doesn't so much cite it or examine it so much as he waves his hand and suggests its over there. 

Third, early childhood would be easier to work on because it's not so politically charged. So getting bipartisan money for early childhood ed should be easier.

There's a whole discussion to be had about how to do early childhood right (spoiler alert: it doesn't involve formal instruction and Pearson standardized tests). But I'm too angry about Kristof's giant tourist balls to have that discussion right now.

Kristof manages to say one or two things that aren't stupid-- like this:

Education inequity is America’s original sin. A majority of American children in public schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and they often get second-rate teachers in second-rate schools — even as privileged kids get superb teachers. This perpetuates class and racial inequity and arises in part from a failed system of local school financing.

But then he immediately goes on to say this:
But fixing K-12 education will be a long slog, so let’s redirect some energy to children aged 0 to 5 (including prenatal interventions, such as discouraging alcohol and drug use among pregnant women)

This is the theme of his piece. He opened by noting that education reformers have been working at this for twelve whole years! Twelve!! Think of it. But now it's just oh so hard and it turns out that you can't just breeze in like some miraculous drive-by do-gooder and just fix things. There are real problems! And some of them are hard to solve! Gosh, those of us who work in education had no idea.
So clearly it's time to pack up and move on.

Look, I believe there are a handful of reformsters who know better, and I'm sure plenty of them mean well. But this is just too much. I'm pretty sure that I read Kristof more often than he reads me. But I have a message for him anyway.

Dear Mr. Kristof:

Does a decade seem like a long time to work at education? Does working at education seem hard? While we're at it, have you noticed that water is wet?

This-- this "well this has been difficult, it's time to move on"-- THIS is why from the first moment reformsters showed up on the scene, teachers across America rolled our eyes, squared our shoulders, and turned away. Because we knew that the day would come when the tourists decided they wanted to pack up and leave. Because you were not in it to get the job done.

Reformsters were never the white knights or the saviors of education. The vast majority of reformsters were the people who swept into a home, pulled all the furniture out from the wall, burned the drapes (because you don't want these old things) and started to tear the floor up. Then somewhere around day three, you declare, "Man this is hard, and this couch doesn't fit against that wall (which we had told you all along)" and so you pack up, drive away, and leave the residents to put things back together.

You think twelve years was a long time? I've been at this for thirty-six, and I have plenty more to go because there's still work to do, and as long as I can do it, I will. Plenty of my colleagues have done and will do the same. You think educating in the face of poverty and lack of resources and systemic inequity is difficult? Many of my colleagues have been doing it for decades. But reformsters have been so sure that they didn't need to listen to the locals. They and their giant balls knew better than any stupid teachers.

Doing the education thing takes a lifetime. In fact, it takes more than a lifetime-- that's why we've constructed an institution that provides continuity above and beyond what we could get from any single human being.

You think that the education thing is hard, "a slog," after just a decade! You amateur. You dabbler! You tourist! Has the education reform movement "peaked"? Well, guess what! Education has not. We are still working at it, still striving, still doing our damnedest. When reformsters have moved on because it's hard and challenging and a slog and not just as fun as it was a whole ten years ago, we will still be here, doing the job, educating students and doing it all in the midst of the mess created by a bunch of wealthy well-connected hubristic tourists with gigantic balls.

You think education is hard? What the hell do you think dedicated teachers across this country are doing with their entire adult lives?!!

So get out. Go. Move on to the next big opportunity and screw around with that until you're all distracted by the next shiny object. Education is not the better for your passing through.

Education needs people who will commit, people who are in it for the marathon, not the sprint, people who are willing to dedicate their whole lives to teaching because that's the minimum that it takes. Students and communities need schools that are permanent stable fixtures, not temporary structures built to long as a reformster's attention span.

It's hard? You've peaked? You want to move on to other things?

Get the hell out, sonny. The grown-ups have work to do.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

PA: York Schools To Remain Public

In what was not exactly the surprise ruling of the century, the Pennsylvania courts have finally put an end to the drive to privatize York city schools.

York was poised to be an exemplar, a public school that had already reached the end of its ability to withstand the Pennsylvania public school starvation diet. That led to a state-appointed overseer. Last December, Tom Corbett's lame duck administration tried an 11th hour attempt to put York schools in receivership. The receiver was to be David Meckley, the same businessman who had already been serving as York's minder and who had all-but-inked a deal with Charter Schools USA to take over the whole system.

This plan appealed to absolutely nobody in York, but it fit the pattern of privatization-- starve a district of resources until it fails, then declare it a failure, declare that the students must be rescued, and bring in the charters. Essentially, reform by arson (because you just can't count on hurricanes to come in and do the work for you everywhere).

The local challenge to the takeover initially did poorly, with the courts ruling that it was legally irrelevant whether the state intended to do something stupid or not. The state then tried to argue that since the school board had been stripped of power, it did not have the power to appeal being stripped of power (because someone in Harrisburg has invested heavily in the use of the word "Kafkaesque" and was trying to prop up the market). The courts said stop being ridiculous, and the clock continued to run out on Corbett as new governor Tom Wolf, who had been rather sphinx-like on the subject of charters and whose home town is York, came out on the side of public schools.

Using his best wall-reading skills, David Meckley resigned his Post de Privateur a little over a month ago.

Now comes word that the court has cleared away the last of the issues surrounding the appointment of a receiver, which makes sense since there is nobody in Harrisburg or York arguing in favor of receivership or charterfication. The district still has a recovery officer, and like virtually all school districts in Pennsylvania, it is in huge financial trouble, but the recovery officer is somebody from education, not business, and its financial issues still belong to the public.

In short, York still has a tall mountain to climb. The new governor's proposed budget will help, but it won't perform miracles-- and that's only if it gets past the GOP legislature. The people of York and their school leaders will have some tough struggles ahead-- but at least those won't include watching a profit-making charter operation strip-mine their city schools for fun and profit. For the rest of us, this little tale is a reminder of what the end game looks like, and that it's not an unbeatable, unavoidable fate for public schools.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NY: Opt Out More Popular Than Charter Schools

The number of students opting out of the Big Standardized Test in New York State is still fluid, and we'll have more numbers shortly when this week's BS Test in mat inspires families to keep children out of the test-taking mess.

But a fair middle-of-the-road estimate would seem to be 175,000 students who chose not to take the BS Test.


On a whim, I went looking for the number of charter school students in New York State. I found this number for the 2013-2014  school year in the report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a group that certainly has no reason to low-ball the number of charter students. Here's the number.


New York leaders like Andrew Cuomo and Merryl Tisch have been vocal in their support of charters. Back when Bill DeBlasio was daring to stand in the way of charter expansion, Andrew Cuomo stood up at a charter rally to defend the charters and declare their importance to the state's education.

Those 91,813 students were deemed worthy of being defended by the governor of the state:

"We are here today to tell you that we stand with you,” Mr. Cuomo said. “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”

So my question is this: if 91,813 students deserve the full-throated defense of Governor Cuomo for their educational choices, then how soon can we expect him to stand up for the educational choices of the 175,000? If this week's numbers hit the projection of 200,000, will he be twice as vocal in defense of twice as many students?

If I Had Been in Atlanta

Much has been written about the conviction of the Atlanta teachers from the standpoint of society-- how should we react, should they have been convicted, how should they be punished, what this tells us about the system, etc. Here's a great article comparing their fates to the fates of our economy-crushing housing crisis creators. Here's what one of my favorite political writers, Jason Linkins, had to say. And here, tied more closely to testing policy, is what blogger Stephen Singer had to say. And if you'd like the background of how this happened, last year's New Yorker article is thorough.

But as I've watched this unfold and read through many reactions to the prosecution and conviction, I find myself coming back to the more personal question--

What would I have done if I had been in Atlanta?

Most teachers have a visceral reaction to cheating-- bad, wrong, don't, don't ever, ever, ever, ever do it. I'm no different. Cheating is wrong. Dishonesty is wrong. And, frankly, I've made enough mistakes in my own life to know that sick-at-gut feeling of living dishonestly, to know it personally and to live with a pretty strong commitment to never feeling it again.

But I'm not in Atlanta.

I teach in a small town high school in a rural area that is mostly free of the high-pressure troubles of poor urban schools. We're pretty unwealthy ourselves, but here in the hinterlands, there aren't a lot of charters and privateers trying to crack open the market. We're also the only high school in the district, so we don't have people breathing down our necks with score sheets in one hand and demolition plans in the other.

I also teach for bosses who are not score-obsessed or threatening to end my career if I don't make my numbers. The state may slowly be losing its mind with teacher evaluations, but my bosses still judge me on how well I teach.

So I'm not in Atlanta. I'm not working under the constant threat of punishment for crazy factors beyond my control. So if I stand up and nobly proclaim that I am 100% certain I would never do what those teachers in Atlanta were convicted of doing (and what so many other teachers across the country have not been convicted of doing), I would be talking out of some orifice other than my mouth.

I know some of the factors I would consider.

I think one of the worst results of the cheating in Atlanta (and in DC and Philly and Houston) is that cheating on tests has bolstered the illusion that reform is working.
testing erase.jpg
Teachers are often terrible institutional enablers. Somebody up the line makes a bad policy choice, and rather than let our students suffer for that choice, we "fix" it on the classroom level. This solves the problem for the current students, but it also gives the administration the impression that the policy works just great.

Sometimes it's necessary to step back and allow a single small mess in the present to avoid huge systemic ongoing disasters in the future. It is one of the things I wonder-- how much longer did No Child Left Behind keep chewing up education because all of us in the classroom were doing our best to make it look as if NCLB were actually working?

But thinking about that would also remind me that we lie and cheat on the small scale all the time. We put our name on all manner of paperwork, from fictitious lesson plans to dust-collecting standards alignment documents, with no intention of pledging ourselves to pay attention. In teaching, nodding your head and signing your name to baloney is part of the normal price of admission. Raise your hand if you've never fudged a student's grade for your own class. Yeah, that's what I thought.

We accept it because we think of it as paperwork that doesn't matter, that has no bearing on the real work we do. I don't consider the Pennsylvania's Big Standardized Test anything more than a time-wasting big pile of useless baloney; linking it to threats against my professional future won't make me respect it any more, but my lack of respect for it would probably make it easier to cross that line.

Bob Schaeffer of Fairtest says, given the overuse and abuse of standardized testing, "It is hardly surprising that more school professionals cross the ethical line."

But here's the thing-- all teachers were pushed across an ethical line years ago. No Child Left Behind codified a whole raft of educational malpractice. It required, among other things, that teachers treat the big Standardized Test as the gold standard of what education is about. It required that we tell our students, "Nothing is more important to your future than getting a good score on the BS Test." And as most of us recognize, that is a lie. It is especially a lie for poor students who lack both the skills to excel at test taking and who also lack much of what they need beyond test-taking ability. It's like taking poor kids to the store, handing them ten dollars, and saying, "Now, the only thing you need to plan a great menu for the week is this fifteen-dollar case of Twinkies."

The Atlanta teachers were over the ethical line from the moment NCLB was made law. They could either follow the letter of the law, stop doing the things that were turning their school around and focus on a bogus test for a system that would inevitably chew them up, or they could try to trick the system into sparing them in hopes that some students could eventually be saved. Both choices are unethical, but one choice was far more likely to serve the interests of the students-- at least in the short term.

NCLB and much education reform nonsense makes me angry precisely because it gives me a lose-lose choice. I can break the rules and commit educational malpractice, or I can do what I know professionally is correct and break some rules while doing it. Or I can, as most teachers do, try to create some sort of clever parquet out of the two and tap dance my way through the teaching day.
Teaching has, in one short generation, turned from a profession with extraordinary ethical clarity into one of shadows and greyness and compromises that we make with the system, our students, and ourselves.

If I had been in Atlanta, what would I have done?

The honest answer is that I don't know. I might have refused to cheat at all and instead tried to wave my hands and draw attention to the crash and burn that followed, but the modern ed reform approach has been crashing and burning, with virtually no successes to speak of, for over a decade-- and nobody in power seems to care.

So I might have decided to try to save my kids and my school, and I might have stepped into it by increments, until I was confronted by the horror of people trying to laud my "success" publicly.
I might have looked for other work, if I could, but I am a nester and when I put down roots in a community, I'm unlikely to pick up. I might have left the profession, but it would have been bitter to abandon my students to someone else willing to live on the wrong side of the ethically line. I might have become obnoxious and angry, that guy who makes everyone's eyes roll in staff meetings, and blogged angrily as well, until I managed to get myself reprimanded and fired for insubordination. Except in all those cases, a decade ago I would have had to face the prosepct of being a divorced dad with kids to look out for.

One of my fundamental beliefs about life is that, no matter how dark the place you find yourself, no matter how many wrong choices you have made, there is always a right choice open to you. So it is a hard thing for me to imagine that there were no good choices available for the Atlanta teachers (or all the other cheating teachers who haven't been arrested or ruined). But I wasn't there, and I have no way of knowing exactly what choices they faced.

And yet there is something baldfaced and ugly about taking out an eraser and changing the answers on a test. It seems like a bigger jump. But is it?

Making ethical choices in unethical circumstances is damned hard. It would be great if the Powers That Be recognized the conviction of the Atlanta teachers as what it is-- a sign that the system is horribly out of whack. It would be great if the Powers That Be recognized that a teacher who changes answers on a test is not the equivalent of a dangerous organized crime figure who needs to be locked up for the safety of society. I'm not holding my breath.

Instead, I'm just remembering to hoping that my big Atlanta moment never comes, but if it does, that I recognize it and that I find a choice that I can live with.

Originally posted in View from the Cheap Seats

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Duncan's Regrets

Arne Duncan put in an appearance at the Education Writers' Association conference and allowed himself to be interviewed by Motoko Rich of the New York Times. Alyson Klein of EdWeek was there (because she's a real education writer and not some lousy blogger), and she reported some of the highlights of that interview. I'm going to look at some highlights of the highlights because, as usual, Duncan has some moments that make one question who, exactly, is this man who has been put in charge of a nation's education system.

Duncan regrets waiting so long to implement waivers. In hindsight, he thinks they wasted time waiting for Congress to get to rewriting the ESEA, and you know, I can almost sympathize with him on this-- until I remember that Congress is composed of people democratically elected to handle the writing of laws in this country, and Arne Duncan is neither 1) elected or 2) charged with writing the laws of this country.

But it is interesting that, contrary to the usual lines about ed reform being rolled out too fast, Duncan thinks it wasn't rolled out fast enough.

He underlines this when asked if maybe the simultaneous rollout of new testing and systems linking teacher evaluation to that same new testing-- well, maybe that was all a bit much. Klein quotes Arne:

It's been a lot of change, it's been a lot of change fast, it's absolutely been rocky and bumpy in some places. ... But for me the question is, how do you get better, faster?

I think I know the answer to that last question and, in brief, the answer is "Not like this." And maybe I'd also suggest that faster is not always better. But then I'd probably illustrate it with some sophomoric example, so I'll just not make that point.

A question brings up that whole testing and opt-out and people hating the testing thing. Duncan tries to once again suggest that he totally gets it and totally called for folks to back off on excess and unnecessary testing, by which he means state and local testing, which is another way of asserting that the Big Standardized Tests are the most important tests being given in schools, which I'd say is exactly backwards, and the BS Tests are the least necessary and useful and if we are going to throw a test over the side of the lifeboat for being fat and useless and repeatedly eating the supply of biscuits when it doesn't think anyone is looking, well, that test that had better start swimming is the Big Fat Standardized PARCC/SBA/WTF test.

He also makes his equity point, that folks in the civil rights and disability community want their kids tested, and I've heard this from enough places that I believe it, but I still believe those folks are being hoodwinked, because 1) we don't need a test to tell us that poor urban schools need help and 2) in ten years of this testing regimen, we haven't lifted a dollar to actually help the schools that have been identified as being in trouble.

Asked why he likes the Congress ESEA rewrite and not the House one, Arne says that seeing Congressional bipartisanship gives him goosebumps, and the Title I portability idea sucks. On this particular point, I think he's actually correct. Portability is one more way to take money away from poor schools (and help charter operators get rich). That is not good for anybody (except charter operators).

Asked about his plan to rate colleges, Duncan said, "Necessary colleges expensive argle bargle blerg."

Someone asked Arne when he would take funding away from a college that failed to satisfy Title IX. Duncan replied, "We'll take away federal funding when we need to." Klein called this non-specific, but I would call it awesomely non-responsive. It's rare when Arne just goes ahead and says, "Screw you. I'll do it the way I wanna" and I find those moments bracing in their honesty.

Asked about the digital divide, Arne fell back on a more standard Duncanswer, which is a wordy version of "That is a true thing that you have said, and I certainly heard you say it." It mimics reflexive listening and agreement, even if he has no idea what to answer. In fact, the Duncanswer format is exactly like the proper response to a writing prompt on a Big Standardized Test-- even if you don't understand the question, you can still recycle enough words from it to create a topic sentence and maybe even the first few paragraphs. You can see it in his dyslexia grilling, too. The Duncanswer. Remember, you heard it here first.

Asked about his biggest regret, Duncan models the non-apology apology. He doesn't regret anything he did including the white suburban moms crack (gosh, he's just a straight-shooter who speaks from his heart), but he does regret that Congress sucks and can't get its job done.

He also regrets that all of America sucks in its inability to think that education is really important, proof once again that Arne needs to get out and speak to regular non-government non-screened carbon-based life forms. It's a question that begs a follow-up-- who exactly is it that does not consider education a national priority? Your boss the CIC? Congress? All the parents? All the teachers? All the Americans pre-occupied with keeping their families fed and sheltered? Boy, I would really like to hear the rest of the explanation behind that idea, if he didn't try to dodge it completely. Which would be the Duncancover. You're welcome.

The Culture of Compliance

Last night I attended a school board meeting at a nearby district where they are struggling, like all Pennsylvania school districts, with financial problems.

Culprit #1 is the pension system. For a variety of reasons, school districts must contribute an amount equal to roughly 21% of their payroll this year to the pension fund. Next year it will be 25%. In a few years it will finally top out at 32%.

Culprit #2 is the cyber charter system, which sucks enormous amounts of blood from local districts. At the meeting, the treasurer listed off the monthly payment as well as the year-end total. It would be enough to keep their soon-to-be-closed elementary school open.

As the expense was explained, one board member said, "That's just nuts." Another board member said, "Well, let's just not pay it." And there was a sort of awkward silence.

Now, practically speaking, it would be a fruitless gesture. Presumably the state would simply garnish the district's subsidy payments, perhaps levy a fine. And it can be dicey to go head to head with the state-- a few decades back Philadelphia schools decided to play financial chicken with Harrisburg and lost local control. So withholding charter payments may or may not be a wise idea.

But the moment reminded me once again of how thoroughly the education system is saturated in the culture of compliance.

It is, frankly, one of the worst things about how we sometimes run schools and classrooms. When I was first starting out, it suddenly hit me like a bathtub full of icy water that when some of my colleagues talked about excellent and outstanding students, they were not talking about students who were whip smart or highly curious or uniquely driven or bold thinkers-- they were talking about students who behaved themselves, who did as they were told, who were cheerfully and fully compliant.

In my career, I have occasionally butted heads experienced philosophical differences with colleagues who don't just want their students to learn the material, but to be happy and grateful about it, to have the Right Attitude. I once worked for a man who equated letting students get away with dress code violations with letting students walk around shooting people.

We love rules. I would argue we love them way too much, and our love of the rules permeates the institution from top to bottom.

This is a lesson we could actually learn from the business world. My brother, who comes from the world of manufacturing, served on the school board for years. He would tell versions of the following story: "In the meeting administration would talk about some stupid rule from the state and we would all agree that it was a stupid rule. Then I would say, 'Well, let's just ignore it' and everyone would look at me like I had two heads one of which spoke Greek." But in parts of the business world, rules are not king. If a rule is stupid, you ignore it. And if you're supposed to pay somebody, but they are doing a crappy job or hurting your business, you withhold payment to get their attention and start a conversation.

Sure, too much of that gets you companies violating important rule and doing real damage. But so does doing as you're told without thinking about whether that's a good idea or not. The world is filled with folks who live somewhere between the Land of Anarchy and the Culture of Compliance.

Compliance is so hard-wired into schools that most educational regulations do not have any substantial oversight-- they just assume that schools and teachers will do as they're told.

True story. Pennsylvania has a law that says your school year must be done by a particular date, which means a teacher strike can't extend beyond a number of days. When we were on strike over a decade ago, we needed to figure out what that date was, so both the union and the district tried to find somebody in Harrisburg who could tell us for sure when the end date for the strike would have to be and, just for fun, what the penalty would be if we went over. Not only could we not find anybody in Harrisburg who could answer the question, we couldn't even find someone who would admit that their office was supposed to know the answer. We finally picked a final date to agree on-- it was one of the first points of agreement in the whole negotiation. There was no enforcement mechanism to go with the law-- apparently they had just assumed that if there was a law about school stuff, everyone involved would be sure to follow it.

In this one respect, the creators of Common Core actually read the room pretty well. "Once we put this out there as the Official Approved Standards," they must have thought, "teachers will pretty much fall in line, because they always follow the rules no matter what."

Meanwhile, we've been taking these crappy high stakes tests for years because that's what we were told we were supposed to do. In the face of the opt out movement, we still have education folks sputtering that of course you have to take the test because that's just what you're supposed to do because if you don't, Bad Things Will Happen (and go on your Permanent Record).

If there is any remotely good thing to come out of the last decade-plus of reformster nonsense, it's a growing awareness among teachers and parents and even administrators that we cannot simply comply with whatever comes down the pike, no matter what official seals of officially officialness are pasted all over it.

My dream world is not filled with anarchy and chaos, but I'm not deeply attached to order and rules and compliance, either. Our best students should be our most challenging ones, and sometimes being challenged is uncomfortable and hard and pushes us out of the EZ lane. But it's the best way to grow and rise and become fully human, fully ourselves. So that means challenges for the students, challenges for us, and challenges for edu-leaders of all stripes who were hoping we would just shut up and sit down and behave because that's what we're supposed to do. I am always open to new ideas, new techniques, new insights, new understands, but none of those come into town riding on the back of Because I Said So or This Is The New Required Policy.

Compliance never leads to excellence. Never. Don't make trouble just to make trouble, but don't put up with wasteful, toxic, destructive nonsense just to avoid trouble, either. Compliance is not a virtue-- not in us, not in our students, not in our leaders.